A trip to Drogheda would not be complete without meeting the legendary Joey Maher and it was a great pleasure for me to meet the great man in his home. By Micheal McGee.
Joe was sitting comfortably in his front sitting room when I arrived. One entire wall has been taken over with photos of his achievements going back half a century. One photo had Joey standing beside the late Michael O'Hehir and Peadar Smith, who was centre back on the Louth All-Ireland winning team in 1957. Another photo had Joey receiving his Texaco Sports Award in 1969 from the late Taoiseach Jack Lynch.
A plaque from the Toronto Gaelic Athletic Association read 'Presented to Joey Maher on his achievement in winning the World Championship in 1967'.
Joey took a black and white photo off the mantle piece and showed me a group photo of himself and a number of colleagues who had just graduated from the Toronto Metropolitan Police. Joey stared off his amazing handball career in Millmount, not far from his home at that time, and used to play there on his way home from school at around nine years of age. His achievements are vast and the front room in his house is testimony to his achievements. During an illustrious career he won thirty All-Ireland titles, six Canadian titles, as well as two USA titles in 1966 and '74. Three World titles - Toronto 1967, Knoxville 1974 and Kilowna Valley Canada in 1986 - were also claimed by the Louth man.
He was awarded the Irish Handball Hall of Fame in 1996. Joey went to Canada in 1964 where he joined the Metropolitan Police. In Canada this Irishman was unbeatable winning six Canadian titles and culminating in winning his first World title in Toronto in 1967. His training back then was simply playing and plaoying handball. Joey would play seven nights a week. He told me he would play in Tagmon in Wexford and play on every court on the way back to Drogheda in places like Arklow, Gorey, Devlin and Kells. Where Joey saw an alley he would stop off and play some of the locals. He mentioned to me he once cycled 25 miles in fifty-seven minutes.
Joey's best games were against the likes off John Ryan in Wexford, Paddy Murray in Birr, Paddy O'Shaughnessy in Delvin, Roundy an Murty McEllistom in Kerry, Dick Lyng from Wexford and Pat Kirby in Clare.
Joey is full of interesting tales from his career. On one occasion Joe McArdle and Joey were playing in a Leinster Handball Final in 1956 in Enniscorthy and he saw Scott Delaney kill a ball behind him and at the same time killed a wasp on his back. This of course was in the days when jerseys were not worn.
Another amusing incident Joey recalls involves John Ryan from Bridgetown in Wexford who used to wear a back strap. On one occasion he took it off and in it was a half crown. He placed the strap in a hole in the wall. Afterward he was about to pay for some drinks in the local pub. On realizing he left the strap in the hole in the wall ran down to the handball court and came back and paid for his drinks.
Former players Joe greatly admired were the likes of John Ryan from Wexford, Dublin's Larry Roe and Downey of Kerry. Jimmy Jacobs from the USA, who incidentally managed Mike Tyson for a while, was also a favourite of Joey's.
In the present crop of handballers Joey mentions Eoin Kennedy and Paul Brady as excellent players. Joey knew that Brady was going to be something special from an early age.
One of the best games Joey can remember was oddly enough the first round of the Leinster championship in 1957 against Des Dillon of Dublin. Games in those times were the best of five.
Joey lost the first two games and was 14-10 down in the third but somehow staged a remarkable recovery to beat the Dubliner in the fifth. It says much for the fitness and battling qualities of the young Maher.
Dillon, who later qualified as a Doctor, partnered Joey in the world championships in 1964. Sadly shortly after Joey came back from Canada Des Dillon was tragically killed in a train accident in Booterstown.
Handball has meant an awful lot to Joey and he has met some wonderful people through the sport. He is immensely proud that he is in the museum in Croke Park and Millmount museum.
At the back of Millmount museum is the Handball court where Joey started off playing handball. In Millmount there is a special place reserved depicting the exploits of this extraordinary handballer.
It mentions that in 1958 while working in Wexford he played 19 games in the morning in Castlebridge stopped for lunch and then travelled to Tagmon where he played another 22 games. In 1962 he won the Gael Linn Cup, which had an entry of 1,200. In 1964 Joey partnered Des Dillon and represented Ireland at the first ever world championships. The Canadian Prime Minister presented Joey with a trophy in recognition of his achievements. Len Ahern writing in the handball book described Joey Maher as 'most unassuming' off the court.
His achievements brought richness to the sport as he ushered in a unique era in the history of handball. Also in the museum is the McKenzie medal presented to Maher by the Canadian Prime Minister. It's well worth a visit just to look at Maher's record in handball over the years.
On leaving the museum the Curator mentioned to me the story of how Maher, just before the World Championships in Toronto, apprehended a villain. Not wanting to hurt his hands Maher gave the unknown individual one almighty kick and stretched him out until the guards arrived.
Maher is an inspiration to us all. Joey firmly believes that that had Peter McAuley kept playing he would have won the World Championships in 2003.
He was saddened that McAuley packed up handball at the height of his handball career and dropped out completely, especially as McAuley was still very young and improving all the time.
Joey Maher praised Walter O'Connor as a great player and said he should have won more titles but perhaps it was his concentration that let him down.
Even well into his fifty's Maher was beating the likes of O'Connor and McAuley in competitive games. Up to last December Maher was playing away in O'Rahallaigh's and was intent on going over to Edmonton to play in the World Championships Over 70 competition. An injury has curtailed his handball training and he hasn't hit a ball in anger since.
Nowadays Maher has Greyhounds doing all the running and has 20 in total. One of his pups won the Gold Puppy Championship in Shelbourne Park a number of years ago. With warm shake hands I left Joey full in the knowledge that I had just met one of the all time greats in handball. His exploits on the handball courts around the world are legendary. He may have been unassuming off the court but once he stepped over the white line he fought tigerishly for every ball and he wanted to win every game.
Maher was given a God given talent and he has used it to the best of his ability.
On my way home from Drogheda, many thoughts ran through my mind.
On one hand I was despondent for the current state of handball courts in Drogheda where in the 1980s and early '90s handball was so strong with four clubs. Now they haven't even got a covered court to play on - how times have changed. One the other hand I was uplifted and inspired after meeting Joey Maher in his home. John Kelly and his Committee are striving to bring handball back to its former glory and already there is great hope for the future with the Juveniles beginning to make names for themselves in the Louth jersey. With the involvement of the Local Council, GAA, Handball Committee and all interested parties, things will change with Drogheda and Louth hopefully once more rising to the top of the handball elite in this country and beyond.
A Louth Awakening
Michael McGee took a trip up to Drogheda to speak with charismatic Louth Co. Handball Secretary, John Kelly.
Kelly stared his own playing career in Millmount court in Drogheda back in 1968 where the legendary Joey Maher also began his distinguished career in handball. Ten years later the Marian Park 40x20 court was officially opened and Joey Maher played Pat Kirby in an exhibition match. Kelly was greatly influenced by then Co. Secretary Tommy Shields and by his brother Charlie. Of course Joey Maher was the player he admired greatly growing up.
Kelly remembers well when Joey Maher came up to the Millmount 60x30 open court in 1969. The place fell silent when Maher, the World Champion from Toronto in 1967, came onto the court. Maher gave a coaching session and explained to the young players what shots to play and how to strike the ball. He then selected three young lads to have a game against. As Maher went off the court that day it left an indelible mark on the young Kelly who still remembers the buzz of excitement that Maher left in the alley.
On another occasion Maher came into Marian Park Alley to train and play. One evening Kelly was upstairs in the gallery and he looked down to see Maher as he practiced serving for 20 minutes two feet from the right hand side. Maher served low and hard so the ball would spin off the side wall and drop making it impossible to return.
Kelly enjoyed watching the televised Top Ace handball in the early 1970's. The 15 minute games were played at a fast and furious pace. More recently Kelly witnessed the final of this year's FBD sponsored Irish Nationals in Kingscourt and was enthralled to see the display given by Brady in the final again Eoin Kennedy of Dublin who was aiming for a four in a row in the Competition.
John is modest about his own playing achievements. He was Louth Singles champion on three occasions, Leinster finalist for the past three years and was runner up in the Delegates Cup final with Sean Devlin. The Louth Secretary is optimistic about the future of handball despite its present difficulties.
"The young players are coming through and this bodes well for the years ahead," said Kelly. "Ivor Kelly won the Leinster U-17 B final in 2004.
"This year Keith Brannigan and Wayne Devine reached the U-17 doubles final. Unfortunately Wayne broke his leg in a football match prior to the final and had to concede the final to Laois.
"Newtown Blues, O' Rahallaighs, Marian Park and Togher had all very strong teams. The Blues had Joey Maher, Paddy Reilly, Red Meehan and a young rising star at the time Peter McAuley. O' Rahallaighs had Dick Devlin and James Harty while Tommy Shields and Tom Connelly formed a very successful doubles team.
"Marian Park had players of the Calibre of John and Charlie Kelly, Michael Tiernan and Brendan O' Keefe. Togher boosted the likes of Sean Devlin, Joe McArdle, and Benny Markey. All won County titles in which rivalry between the clubs proved to be very intense."
History of Drogheda Handball
Once there were four clubs in Drogheda. Millmount 60x30 is the oldest club in the town which is still in use up to the present day. Newtown Blues opened in early 70's. The O'Rahallaighs was opened in 1975 while Marian Park opened three years later. Handball in the Co. Louth town was very strong in the period from 1980 to 1990. The Maher's - Joey, Michael and Eddie - and the McAuley's - Peter, John and Michael - were synonymous with the game in the county. Both Joe McArdle senior and junior from Dunleer as well as Tommy Shields and Tom Connelly played very competitive games. With that generation of great men getting older there were no young players ready to bring Louth forward in the handball world and things started to take a dramatic slide downwards.
Peter McAuley at the height of his handball career packed it in completely in 1998 to start up his own business. It meant that Louth for the first time in over 40 years had no senior representative. The Louth Secretary is in no doubt if McAuley was still playing he would be in the top five seeded players. Today only John Kelly and Sean Devlin are playing at Silver Masters Level in the adult grades.
O'Raghallaigh's roofless after five months
The playing facilities have gone in a number of clubs. Only the Raghallaigh's 40x20 court remains in use. Storm damage in January blew the roof of the sports complex and amazingly it still hasn't been repaired. The Handball Committee is at a loss why it is taking so much time. Millmount's open 60x30 court is still in use but needs renovations to bring it up to the required standard.
The gates into Marian Park were locked when I arrived and even from a distance a number of very large gaping holes can be seen in the roof. From this handball reporters view it's very sad to see.
Newtown Blues is also no more and is now a restaurant. Kelly is fulsome in his praise of the officials who are doing their best to keep the game of handball alive in Drogheda. Michael Tiernan as Club Secretary is doing an excellent job in promoting the game at many levels. Sean Devlin and James Harty, who are working with the Juveniles, along with Gerry Flanagan are all very strong and committed committee members. Kelly would like to see more big handball games being played in Drogheda as he pointed out to me there hasn't been a Championship match in the O' Rahallaigh's court in the past 10 years.
"This has got to put right by Leinster and Irish Handball Council Officials," said Kelly. "How can you promote the game if you don't at least get a number of top class fixtures in the clubs each year?"
Kelly quite rightly pointed out that if Drogheda got bigger quality games the crowds and the interest would come back again. Keith Brannigan, Wayne Devine are two players Kelly has singled as handball stars of the near future in Drogheda. He hopes these young players will be wearing the Louth Jersey with great pride and no doubt will bring further glory to this amazing handball town in the North East.
With all the pessimism around Kelly still remains upbeat about the future. One bright light is the numbers of Juveniles playing and its increasing year on year with successes increasing all the time. With Kelly's forward thinking handball is now taking place in St. Mary's Secondary School where the students have quite literally got hooked on the game. In September School Principal Mrs. Clarke is hoping to run a tournament for the students. LMFM Radio is very helpful in promoting handball on its airwaves especially Colm Corrigan who is only too delighted to announce handball news. The Drogheda Independent also came in for praise from the Co. Secretary in handball promotion.